Are Farmer's Markets Frugal or a Luxury?

by Carrie Kirby on 26 May 2008 17 comments
Photo: bunnicula

We have always shopped farmer's markets sporadically, but this is the first season that we are on a specific weekly grocery budget. As we prepared to hit the opening weekend of our local farmer's market, I wondered: Is this going to help me stay under budget or strain the budget?

Turns out, I'm not the only one to wonder whether I was paying more for the pleasure of farmer's market shopping: the freshness, the -- at many markets -- dazzling choices, the opportunity to meet the farmers, the chance to show off your cute vegetable basket/baby in Baby Bjorn/new caftan. There is no argument that most farmer's market produce is much better than what you get at conventional supermarkets. But is it affordable?

Several bloggers did an item-by-item comparison and realized they were paying less for better at the farmer's market:

Beck's and Posh compared the sublime farmer's market at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza, one of the priciest you'll find, to Safeway and was surprised to see that Safeway's crappy vegetables usually cost her more.

Get Rich Slowly found that the farmer's market was on par with Safeway on price but not the local produce stand, which it deemd the best all-around value.

In Florida, The Leftover Queen found better prices at the farmer's market than at her local grocery.

So what about the suburbs of Chicago? I headed out to our area's first farmer's market this weekend to find out. The market in my town opened two weeks earlier than normal this year, and since we are barely past danger of frost around here, not much has been growing yet on local farms. So it was not a big surprise to find very little produce to choose from. Plenty of people showed up, however, to enjoy the sunshine and -- this is important -- the homemade donuts sold each week by nonprofit organizations.

After setting up the husband and kids with donuts and coffee and casing the market thoroughly, I bought a bag of spinach, two pounds of asparagus, two bunches of green onions, and half a pound of cheese. None of it was organic -- even in full swing my local market doesn't have a ton of organic growers -- but the cheese was BGH-free ("From Amish cows," the Wisconsin farmer told me.) I paid $21.25 for a pretty small bag of food.

Here's how the prices I paid stack up to what I usually pay:

Farmer's Market Grocery Store

spinach $3.25 $1 on sale

green onions 2/$5 never buy this but woudln't pay that much

asparagus $3/lb same or better on sale

cheese $14/lb buy lower quality for $4/lb when I can find it

 

When you put aside the cheese, which was a delcious luxury, I paid more at the farmer's market than I would at the store, but not outrageously so. It seems inevitable that for people who rely on loss leaders for much of their food, like I do, you're going to pay more when you buy directy from the farmer. After all, while supermarkets might offer a special on asparagus to get you in the door and sell you $4 boxes of cereal, farmers can't.

At any rate, I'm hoping that when my local market gets into full swing I'll have some lower-cost items to choose from and maybe even see lower prices due to more competition. We'll see.

I am also looking into joining a CSA for the summer, but so far haven't found quite the right one.

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Guest's picture
shellie

my coworker and i was just talking about the farmers market today and this evening i stumbled upon your post.

very interesting. :) i love to shop at our local farmers market too and i pay less than my average groceries stores. like strawberries are $1 to $1.5 a basket and cherries are $1.99 a pound, asparagus $2 a brunch and baby bokchoy $1 a brunch.

Guest's picture
Joe

A wonderful CSA in the Chicago area is Angelic Organics. I've been with them for several years and they have pick up stations throughout the Chicago area. Fresh organic veggies each week (except Winter) and fresh organic fruits every other week.
Give it a try.

Guest's picture
daniel

You can definitely expect to see prices. For example, tomatoes always start out high when they begin coming in around very late July or early August, and then drop when the supply increases into August.

Another possibility of getting a better deal is to ask farmers if they have some damaged produce they'll let go for a lower price. Often the damage is just cosmetic.

Guest's picture
Jul

Whoever's getting 3 kohlrabi for $1 (as in the picture), I'm jealous. They're usually 69 euro-cents a piece here (in Munich). Sometimes as low as 39, but even that's over 50 US cents.

Another thing that should come into the equation is nutrients. A locally-grown veggie is fresher and therefore likely to contain a lot more of the good stuff your body needs than the store vegetables which were shipped in from far away and are old. So in theory, you should be able to make do with less of the farmer's market stuff and still give your body what it needs.

Guest's picture
robin

I find that my family becomes invested in what we find at the farmer's market. We'll make a concentrated effort to make delicious things with these ingredients, and to make sure not one bit of it goes to waste. Since we are also building better meals than we would otherwise, we are learning to cook with vegetables we wouldn't necessarily try otherwise, and it becomes a fun, family event to do so, I don't mind the slight increase in price for local, organic food.

Guest's picture
Amy

There is a year-round farmer's market very close to where I live. One day I decided to write down the prices and then compare them at my normal grocery store (Meijer).

On the whole, most produce was much more reasonable than the chain grocery. However, there were some items (such as bulk portabella mushroom caps) that were a lot more pricey.

For the non-produce items that the market has, Meijer wins hands down.

My strategy has been to get produce from the market and the rest of my items from Meijer. However, with gas prices going up I may try to get everything at the farmer's market--it's probably no more than a 10 minute walk from my apartment.

Guest's picture
Emily

Don't worry, the prices will get better. I'm a regular farmer's market shopper for a reason. This is a really bad time of year to do a comparison.

I like the idea about asking about damaged produce. Here's another: Go right before closing. Some items may be sold out or picked over, but generally farmers would rather sell them at a lower price than pack them up and take them home.

Guest's picture
Lucille

It really depends on the item and time of year. The organic stand at our farmers market that carries lots of heirloom items is usually much higher than the grocery store. But you also can't find many of those things at a grocery store.

But in August you can get an apple box full of canning tomatoes for $20 from the same stand. Most of the tomatoes are perfectly good for slicing, the rest we roast in the oven covered in olive oil and freeze if they last long enough to make it there.

We find zuchinni and cukes dirt cheap around the end of the summer. It seems like there are some items that are way higher just because they are not quite plentiful.

Guest's picture
Amanda

I too think this really depends on where you live. The quality where I am (Washington DC) is really much higher than in any grocery store. I spend about $20-$25 a week for produce, including tomatoes, apples, pears, strawberries, cantalope, potatoes, red and green peppers, grapes, occasional watermelon, and other non produce like fresh pasta, sauces, and bakery items. I know that whatever I pick up is going to taste great when I get home (which I can't say is true for store bought items). For me where I live this is the best option for us. I also however spread out my shopping, between generally 4 places none of which only one is a large chain store and then it's only for frozen items (my son loves waffles) and beverages. I spend about $100 a week on groceries for my family of 4, and we usually only eat actual food, not processed - no boxes or cans for me!

Guest's picture
Guest

The last time I bought it at the farmers market it was a bunch of 3 for $2.99, i.e., $1 EACH!

Carrie Kirby's picture

That reminds me ... Once at the Wednesday SAn Francisco farmer's market (at Civic Center) I was eyeing some portobellas, but they were too expensive. The vendor saw what I was thinking and whipped out a big bag of broken and ugly ones for a buck. He said they would taste just as good ... and they did.

Guest's picture
Matthew

We live in the North Shore area and found a great CSA in Home Grown Wisconsin (http://homegrownwisconsin.com/csa.htm). We save a wad of money over what we'd pay at Jewel or Wholefoods, which is where we'd have to go for comparable organic produce. Besides the money we save every week we get to participate in fun events like the June strawberry u-pick. We'll take our 4yo daughter to pick up to 10 pounds of strawberries for free.

Guest's picture
Maven

Another thing to take into consideration is the hidden cost of cheap supermarket produce--the subsidized transportation of food over long distances, for example. Your taxes are paying for that somewhere, and the environment is picking up the tab for foods produced with pesticides that compromise the soil and pollute waterways. I realize that sometimes when the budget is limited you have to choose food function over food ethics, but farmer's markets and CSAs are a great option for getting the best quality and nutritional value at a reasonable price, AND they are helping the local economy.

Guest's picture
engchik

Good post- but it is way to pricey to shop at my farmers market. i live near Valley Forge, PA and there is onein Phoenixville. I can drop $20-30 on a few ears of corn, 2 organic chicken breasts, 2 cukes, 6 tomatoes and 6 apples. Whiel everything is quite good, it is absurd to pay this amount. Instead I go to Produce Junction. Not sure if this is a PA thing, but you can get bags and bags of produce- mostly in 1-2-5 pound bags for about 10-15 bucks. Since I get so much I usually split it with my grandmom. Plus, the place is a store with vegs on one side and fruit on the other, you just call out what you want, pay and walk out. there's no fancy building, signs or packaging, most people bring their own bags. it is worth it, and i think some of the produce is local.

Guest's picture
Gates

My experience here is with the regular weekly farmer's market in Edmonton, AB that's actually open 12 months of the year. Much of the produce comes from local greenhouses during the winter, but it's also coming out of the ground during the summer.

The Farmer's market veggies had a much better shelf life, which actually saved us money. We had less waste and less trips to the grocery store. Vegetables were typically lasting up to 14 days instead of 5 and we were wasting less "bad" vegetables. There are also the documented benefits of eating "fresher whole foods".

Of course, if the farmer's market is "far" and the local store is "close", that can also affect the equation. Saving $8 out of $200 is no good if you spent an extra 30 minutes driving. And the quality of your farmer's market will vary from the quality of mine.

The big problem with such a comparison is that it's often (pardon the pun) apples to oranges. The only way that you'll know is to give it a try and compare your experiences. There are definitely going to be vast regional differences on this issue.

Guest's picture
Jolyn

I am a huge fan of farmer's markets, the one near my home has great prices once it gets going and I love the open air summertime feel of it. However, the main reason that I shop there is to support local farmers and to buy as much food locally (as opposed to food that's been shipped all over the world) as possible. Even if I did have to pay a little more than I would at the grocery store, I would still shop at the farmer's market because I feel that they are vital to creating a sustainable future for our communities.

Guest's picture
austin

There are a few farmer's markets where I live (Memphis, TN), but they are so lousy compared to the ones in other parts of the country. At one of the ones here, you can find stickered Washington apples in May and bananas (not so local or fresh). The other is more local, but has very little produce at all... lots of baked goods and crafts. Sometimes its more like a flea market than a farmer's market. I would shop there every week if there was actually local food available for purchase! I have lived here for a year and I am still shocked about how hard it is to find local produce... no CSAs available, either, although that is usually the best deal for the money, if you can be flexible enough to cook with what's in the box.